Warriors’ Jonathan Kuminga and his brother share a big mission

Jonathan Kuminga shook his head, leaned forward in his seat and buried his face in his hands.

Two days before that Warriors of the Golden State Forward had returned to the US from a week-long visit to his native Congo, where President Félix Tshilombo treated him like a national hero. Now, in his first game in the Las Vegas Summer League, Kuminga faced a harsh reality: Winning an NBA title at 19 didn’t make him any less raw.

On that sweltering night in mid-July, Kuminga was mired in a four-point, five-ralley nightmare as his older brother and teammate Joel Ntambwe snuck across two spots on the bench to comfort him. After detailing how the Knicks defended him, Ntambwe told Kuminga, “Don’t worry. We have that.”

In the six years since Kuminga moved to the United States for his NBA dream, Ntambwe – himself a veteran basketball player – was Kuminga’s biggest supporter. Rarely an hour goes by without the two exchanging a text message or FaceTime call. When not playing in the G League, Ntambwe lives in San Francisco with Kuminga, where he helps manage his younger sibling’s daily schedule.

“We’re not just brothers,” said Ntambwe, whose presence in the Warriors’ summer league roster was based as much on his association with the organization’s most valuable talent as on his sporting ability. “We’re best friends too. I will always be there for him no matter what.”

They have a common goal: to show children in Congo a world beyond hunger, violence, poverty and Ebola outbreaks. On his first visit home this month since he was 13, Kuminga helped Ntambwe organize a one-day basketball camp in Goma.

The Golden State Warriors?• Joel Ntambwe, left, during practice at the Las Vegas Basketball Center on Thursday, July 14, 2022 in Las Vegas.

The Golden State Warriors?• Joel Ntambwe, left, during practice at the Las Vegas Basketball Center on Thursday, July 14, 2022 in Las Vegas.

Miranda Alam Special on The Chronicle / Special on The Chronicle

There they saw the aftermath of a nearby volcanic eruption that displaced several hundred thousand people and left another half million without clean water. Kuminga and Ntambwe realize that without the basketball, they could be among those forced to flee the lava.

The sight of burnt buildings only fueled their desire to improve Congo’s basketball infrastructure. Almost all playing surfaces in the sub-Saharan country of 95.1 million people are outdoors, many of which are so makeshift that players risk twisting their ankles on the loose ground.

It’s no secret why soccer, a sport that requires little more than a ball made of corn husks and grocery bags, is by far the most popular sport in Congo – a nation where more than 60% of the population lives on less than US$2 live per day. Still, Kuminga and Ntambwe believe their home country can become a basketball hotbed if more athletes are introduced to the sport at a young age.

When Kuminga made his Warriors debut last season, he became only the sixth Congolese player in NBA history and the first from Goma. That is in stark contrast to the far more developed Nigeria, who made it into the league with 34 players, including nine of Nigerian descent in the 2020 draft alone.

Part of Congo’s problem is that its big-name players have failed to represent the country in domestic competition. Kuminga plans to change that by joining Ntambwe for the Congo national team in the qualifiers for the 2023 FIBA ​​World Cup next month.

Not only has Congo never reached a FIBA ​​World Championship — it hasn’t even placed in the top four of the FIBA ​​Africa Championship since 1975, when it was still known as Zaire. During their most recent visit, Kuminga and Ntambwe trained with the national team in the capital, Kinshasa, where they met President Tshilombo and presented him with Kuminga’s No. 00 warrior jersey.

When President Tshilombo told him about young Congolese children waking up early in the morning to see Golden State at the NBA Finals, Kuminga thought about it all that has changed in seven years. In June 2015, Kuminga was a 12-year-old in his seventh grade classroom in Goma, begging his teacher please please play a video of the previous night’s Warriors-Cavaliers final.

That was back when the NBA was just a daydream. Now, after the Warriors signed Gary Payton II, Damion Lee, Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica and Juan Toscano-Anderson elsewhere in free agency, Kuminga is poised to concede more than 25 minutes a night for the defending champion next season to play.

“The bigger my platform, the bigger my responsibility to give back,” said Kuminga, who is organizing a 120-person one-day basketball camp with Ntambwe in Congo in August. “We’re just trying to show that there’s more talent out there.

“But most of all we just want to go out there and help people. Just show that basketball is everywhere and can be a way out.”

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